Shopify President Thinks That AI Will Provide Boost for Small Businesses to Succeed Online

Harley Finkelstein - Shopify

Commerce platform Shopify has transacted over $1 trillion (€921.4 billion) of gross merchandise volume (GMV) since its founding in 2006, demonstrating its significant impact on the retail industry.

What began as a company designed to support small businesses has evolved into a retail behemoth, with prominent brands such as Mattel, Glossier, and, more recently, Ami Paris joining the platform, illustrating its widespread appeal and influence.

Interestingly, high fashion brands that had traditionally declared “we’re never going to sell online” are now into e-commerce, prompting questions about whether this shift signals the end of high street shopping.

Hannah Brown engages in a conversation with Harley Finkelstein, the president of Shopify, to discuss the future of retail and how artificial intelligence could potentially level the playing field for small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs).

Before joining Shopify in 2009, Harley was actually one of the company’s first users, having set up a t-shirt business while studying law; he vividly recalls, “I remember hitting that launch button, to go live and immediately I was selling to a global audience all over the world and it changed my life.”

Hannah Brown Interview With Shopify President Harley Finkelstein

This experience, he notes, revealed to him that the future of retail is inherently global, emphasizing that what truly matters is not the amount of capital one possesses but the level of passion, the quality of the brand, and the excellence of the product.

When asked about the significant differences between North American markets and those in Europe currently, he observed that Europeans are more intentional with their purchases, choosing fewer, more meaningful products from brands they truly love and prefer direct-to-consumer interactions over indiscriminate purchasing.

In the first quarter of this year alone, Shopify has facilitated $60 billion (€55 billion) in transactions through its stores, marking a 23% increase compared to the previous year.

As shopping trends evolve, Shopify adapts accordingly; Harley emphasizes, “If you want to be a relevant modern brand in the future, you have to be able to sell across every surface area where consumers are spending their time.”

Many high-end brands, which traditionally focused on providing an in-person shopping experience, such as Donna Karan, The Row, and Isabel Marant, have begun to look into translating that experience online; conversely, brands like Glossier, which built a massive online following, are now seeking to create in-person experiences.

Shopify has also partnered with major platforms like Google, Meta, Instagram, TikTok, and Snap to facilitate commerce directly through these social media channels;

Harley Finkelstein – Shopify

Harley notes, “Social media is this incredibly democratizing marketing tactic where instead of traditional marketing or traditional advertising, where the company with the most amount of money always won, now the company with the most creativity wins.”

Although being present on multiple platforms simultaneously may seem daunting for a small company starting out, Harley suggests beginning with one platform, understanding the consumer, and then reverse engineering the rest of the retail experiences, stressing that “It’s not necessarily one versus the other. It’s retail everywhere.”

While Harley did not provide a definitive formula for a successful e-commerce business, he emphasized that failure is a normal part of the journey to success; he pointed out that many successful stories, such as Gymshark, began with multiple attempts and failures before achieving massive success, noting,

“A lot of people talk about stories like Gymshark (now a billion dollar brand), for example, what you may not know is that Gymshark was not Ben’s first company. He tried a few things before landing on Gymshark, which turned out to be this huge business and I think now Ben is the youngest billionaire ever in the UK.”

One key piece of advice Harley shared was the importance of resilience and keeping expenses low to ensure that a single bad week does not spell the end of the business.

Despite the challenges small businesses face in competing with established big brands, Harley is confident that AI can help level the playing field; with Shopify’s own generative AI feature, Shopify Magic, small businesses can generate high-quality text for product descriptions and create professional-level product images, significantly enhancing their capabilities.

Olivia Murphy
Driven by a commitment to excellence and integrity, Olivia strives to empower her audience with knowledge that enables informed decision-making and fosters a deeper understanding of the business world. She believes in the power of storytelling to bridge gaps, spark dialogue, and drive meaningful progress within the global business community.